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It is 400 years after the Founding, and a young Roman centurion is camped with his legion on the banks on the Tiber. They are waiting for orders...
It sounds rad or what? A modern audience wouldn't surely think much of this little game, come from an innocent past era of video games history. But, pay what is Caesar's to Caesar, Centurion in its time was too cool for school. I must admit however, that experiencing it again now that the strategy genre has long reached the adult age, makes you think of all the ways it could have been made a better strategy game. Yet, it was a blast to play, and it still is; only not for days and days like other deeper games.
So, what makes this game so cool? Probably battles will be first on everyone's list. Back then tactics was rare to be seen in a game (even war games, most of which were strategic), and a long time would pass before it was a usual element in video games. Besides in Centurion the execution is very nice: the armies are animated, and that's what made this game actually impressive.
The battle system is of course simple by today's standards, but it's actually very good, made with just a few elements. You are given pre-defined choices for battle formation and starting tactic but, except against the weakest enemies--and even so in case you mind crippling casualties--you have to give new orders every minute for single platoons at critical spots (the fighting pauses when you're giving orders). The opening formations are few and can't be modified, but that actually agrees with Roman military practice, which dictated standard ways to deploy an army for a pitched battle, tending to disregard the situation at hand (which is why they couldn't deal with Hannibal before Zama).
Troops move only so fast, so you must anticipate the situation both offensively and defensively. You must plan how to flank the enemy and protect your own flanks: a single platoon can wreak havoc in many enemy ones--and decide the battle--if those aren't properly manoeuvred or supported on time. But it doesn't get so crazy as modern RTS games á la Age of Empires: formations are not permeable--yet they can be broken with superior concentration of fighting power.
Actually, because of the remarkable accuracy of the (very simple) simulation, the kind of battles you'll play in this game will result very similar to the ones actually fought in the Greco-Roman era: two opposed lines of solid infantry with a chiefly passive role, and mobile units on both sides, at the same time covering the flanks and menacing the enemy ones, manoeuvring to doom the entire enemy army with a smart move, or superior shock power or manoeuvrability. (Carthage also used elephants, which never won any battle but were another nice problem to throw at the Romans.)
There are some details that aren't found in all tactic games and they're very good to see. For example morale: when faced with defeat platoons will flee--but they can also be killed. Also, you can't see the enemy formation until you decide your own, and you won't know the enemy tactic until you decide your opening move and the battle commences. (The enemy is equally limited, he doesn't react to your choices--even if from your perspective it looks as if he acts afterwards.)
Unfortunately there's a couple of important limitations that don't simulate real elements of warfare too, but they were probably due to hardware limits. For example platoons can move in four directions only, and between discrete spots (squares that the battlefield is invisibly divided into). And you can't command more than one legion into a battle; this is a very important limitation, because it means that you can't buy yourself as many numbers as you want,even if you have the resources. (However you can defeat an enemy by attacking several times with several legions, fighting several battles--which means losing all but the last.)
In naval battles, you command the flagship against the enemy's, and the outcome of that combat will modulate the rest of the battle, which is otherwise about whose fleet is bigger. So you don't command a whole fleet in battle, as you do with armies.
Another great point in this game is the music. Just a simple background tune for each situation, but really atmospheric, appropriate, and epic. Otherwise there are nearly no sound effects, the hardware didn't provide with more at the time.
The rest of the game revolves around managing your armies and fleets and deploying them around strategically, very little province management, the brief diplomatic intercourses when you enter foreign territory, and chariot races and gladiator games of course. Diplomacy is an extremely weak element of the game, which is very unfortunate. Almost always it boils down to two options: leave or fight. By the time some nation is willing to submit peacefully, it's almost pointless; and you have to choose the right dialogue choices like in an adventure game, but it sounds random.
Chariot races are the most picturesque element of the game, and believe it or not, betting can be your most important income (you can't arrange more than one race each year, and only in Rome). You drive your own chariot, and once you get the hang of it, winning is automatic in the low difficulty levels; so you just end up playing the chariot race mini-game every turn in order to get money for your wars.
In short this is a somewhat shallow strategy game built around an awesome battle simulator, along with various other mini-games bundled in the old tradition. Nevertheless I personally think the result is a great game that deserves its place as a classic, granted it's not perfect, but it's lots of fun. It sure is one of those games that would benefit a lot from a modern version. But since Rome Total War is pretty much just that, and is not half bad, that's already covered.
Even so, after a while all the battles are the same, and the only change you can introduce is increasing the difficulty level. So don't expect Centurion to keep you entertained for days. Still it's good to have some quick fun without getting stuck in lengthier strategy games.